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FLASH ALERT: HIGH RISK OF ATTACKS IN THE RED SEA, GULF OF ADEN, ARABIAN SEA, AND SOMALI SEA

Updated: Mar 31

March 25, 2021, | CTG CENTCOM Team


The Counterterrorism Group is issuing a FLASH ALERT to all vessels in transit in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, the Arabian Sea, and Somali Sea after the Ever Given container ship became stranded in the Suez Canal on March 23, 2021, at around 0740 local time, blocking it completely. This threat is compounded by the existing risks to Israeli ships in the Arabian Sea following multiple missile attacks in recent weeks targeting Israeli-owned vessels in the Gulf of Oman including the latest attack on March 25, 2021. The Current CTG threat matrix indicates there is a HIGH PROBABILITY that there will be further attacks in these waters as the backlog of ships waiting for the Ever Given to be removed to cross the canal increases. This assessment is underpinned by the possibility of the blockage taking weeks to resolve, giving groups operating in these areas - particularly Somali pirates - the time needed to organize attacks against these ships, particularly those in open waters as they have more room to maneuver and escape. The CTG threat matrix also indicates that there is a HIGH PROBABILITY that Iranian forces will conduct an attack themselves. This assessment is based on the rising tensions between Iran and Israel, the United States, and their allies, and the recent attacks against Israeli-owned ships in the Arabian Sea and the Gulf of Oman.


On Tuesday, March 23, 2021, at around 0740 local time, a container ship, the Ever Given, ran aground in the Suez Canal, one of the busiest and most strategically relevant canals in the world for providing a shorter route between Asia and Europe.[1] Its destination was the port of Rotterdam, in the Netherlands. Officials say that the incident was caused by strong winds and a sandstorm, that resulted in a complete blockage of the strait.[2] Since then, no vessel has been able to cross the canal, causing a backlog of ships in the Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and the Arabian Sea waiting for the Ever Given to be removed. There are currently no estimates of how long it will take for the situation to be resolved seeing that it will be mostly dependent on weather conditions, meaning that it could take weeks to resume traffic. Disruptions are likely to occur as shipping dates get delayed, affecting predominantly oil delivery and prices. On Friday, March 27, Brent crude prices, which had been falling in the previous week, spiked by 3%, to over 64 dollars per barrel.[3]



Major Maritime Routes in the World[4]


From a security standpoint, the choke point created by Ever Given has caused an amassment of commercial vessels, many of those owned or operated by Israel and constituting targets for Iranian attacks. This assumption is based on multiple precedents. On Thursday, March 25, 2021, an Israeli-owned cargo ship was hit by a missile in the Arabian Sea while en route to India from Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania. The ship did not suffer severe damage and was able to continue its journey. No casualties were reported.[5] A similar occurrence took place last month in the Gulf of Oman, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu blaming Iran at the time for the attack. Iranian officials denied the allegations. We recommend Israeli officials avoid accusing Iran of being the perpetrator of this last incident before carrying out an investigation into the matter since unconfirmed accusations have historically intensified the conflict and such a move would probably increase the risk of retaliation by Iran or its proxies.


Despite there not being any evidence suggesting Iran was behind any of these incidents, there is a pattern here that indicates Israeli vessels and allied ships should be particularly vigilant in the coming weeks, especially as tensions between Iran and Israel remain extremely high. We suggest Israel issues warnings to those ships operating in the Red, Arabian, and Somali Seas, as well as in the Gulf of Aden. There is a likelihood Iran will use the blockage as an opportunity to exploit existing vulnerabilities and conduct similar attacks. Israel’s allies should be equally vigilant as Iran would use any chances available to target Israel and its allies including using its proxies in the Middle East, indicating that any potential exposure is likely to be used by Iranian forces.


Vessels currently in open waters, particularly in the Red Sea, the Gulf of Aden, and the Arabian Sea, waiting to cross the Suez Canal are particularly vulnerable to terrorist attacks given the presence of pirates in the region. Pirates are especially active in the Gulf of Aden and Somali Sea, but surrounding areas are at an increased risk. This is particularly concerning considering the goods these ships usually transport, such as oil and refined products. These are extremely valuable and frequently targeted, stressing the cruciality of enhancing security in these bodies of water to prevent attacks of this nature. For instance, in 2017, the estimated economic cost of piracy in West Africa was $818.8 million, whereas in East Africa it was $1.4 billion, thus highlighting the value in piracy and the significance of putting in place additional security measures.[6] There is a roughly even chance that the blockage will remain in the coming weeks, indicating that this is likely to become an ongoing threat that requires extra vigilance. We recommend increasing patrolling of open waters through international cooperation seeing that these attacks are likely to affect more than one country and could affect supply chains. The European Union’s Operation Atalante, designed to curtail piracy risks around the Horn of Africa is a significant security apparatus already in place. Atalante may be strongly solicited as ships re-route down along the coast of North-East Africa for the long way around the Cape of Good Hope.


For those vessels re-routing, although the Cape of Good Hope route does not typically go through the Gulf of Guinea, which has become a hotspot for piracy in recent years, the increased traffic just beyond the Gulf could incentivize those pirates with the capability to go into deeper water to conduct hijackings. We reinforce the importance of an international response to address these vulnerabilities, especially if the blockage remains in the following weeks and more ships choose to re-route through the Cape of Good Hope. Since the European Union is already working with coastal nations as well as regional organizations, such as the Economic Community of Central African States to counter piracy in the gulf, the structures in place could help streamline the cooperation process and make patrolling of the waters and information-sharing an easier task and potentially prevent pirate attacks.


CONCLUSION


The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) assesses the current threat of targeted attacks against commercial vessels in the Gulf of Aden and Red, Arabian, and Somali Seas as HIGH. Also, as a result of the re-routing of ships around the Cape of Good Hope, we assess there is a MEDIUM threat of piracy in the Gulf of Guinea and Atlantic waters beyond the Gulf. CTG recommends that vessel operators contact their ships and call for heightened vigilance towards piracy, be it in the form of hijacking or explosive-ladened skiffs. Our analysis indicates the risk to Israeli vessels from Iranian projectiles is also HIGH. The current situation will strengthen the probability that Iran and Israel continue to trade blows by targeting commercial vessels. Iran has demonstrated in the past that it is willing to conduct attacks on enemies wherever security vulnerabilities occur, recent strikes on Israeli shipping vessels illustrate that Iran has identified such a security vulnerability and will continue to exploit this. Therefore, CTG recommends that Israel introduce immediate measures to increase monitoring and deterrence of attacks on Israeli vessels.


If any individuals are interested in learning more about security measures to protect their facilities and personnel, please contact The Counterterrorism Group (CTG) by Telephone 202-643-248 or email info@counterterrorismgroup.com

[1] Container ship runs aground within Suez Canal causing traffic jam, Reuters, March 2021, https://www.reuters.com/article/idUSL4N2LM0DV

[2] Massive Container Ship Runs Aground in Suez Canal, Halting Traffic, NPR, March 2021, https://text.npr.org/980619232

[3] Course pour dégager le canal de Suez, les prix de livraison du pétrole flambent, Investing, March 2021 https://fr.investing.com/news/commodities-news/course-pour-degager-le-canal-de-suez-les-prix-de-livraison-du-petrole-flambent-2011349 (translated by Isaac Greenman)

[4] Shipping density (commercial) by B.S. Halpern (T. Hengl; D. Groll), Wikipedia licensed under Creative Commons

[5] Israel-owned ship hit by missile in suspected Iranian attack: Israeli official, Reuters, March 2021 https://www.reuters.com/article/us-israel-ship-missiles/israeli-owned-ship-damaged-by-missile-in-arabian-sea-israeli-media-report-idUSKBN2BH2F5

[6] The State of Maritime Piracy 2017: Assessing the Economic and Human Cost, Oceans Beyond Piracy, May 2018, https://oceansbeyondpiracy.org/sites/default/files/one_earth_future_state_of_piracy_report_2017.pdf

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